BEIJING — A Chinese doctor who got in trouble with authorities in the communist country for sounding an early warning about the coronavirus outbreak died Friday after coming down with the illness.
The Wuhan Central Hospital said on its social media account that Dr. Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist, was “unfortunately infected during the fight against the pneumonia epidemic of the new coronavirus infection.”
“We deeply regret and mourn this,” it added.
Li was reprimanded by local police for “spreading rumors” about the illness in late December, according to news reports. The outbreak, centered in Wuhan, has now infected over 28,200 people globally and killed more than 560, triggering travel restrictions and quarantines around the world and a crisis inside the country of 1.4 billion.
The World Health Organization tweeted: “We are deeply saddened by the passing of Dr Li Wenliang. We all need to celebrate work that he did” on the virus.
The hospital’s social media post received nearly 500,000 comments in the first half-hour afterward, with many people hoping Li would pull through. One wrote: “We are not going to bed, we are here waiting for a miracle.”
Li was among a number of medical professionals in Wuhan who tried to warn colleagues and others when the government did not, The New York Times reported earlier this week. It said that after the mystery illness had stricken seven patients at a hospital, Li said of them in an online chat group Dec. 30: “Quarantined in the emergency department.”
Another participant in the chat responded by wondering, “Is SARS coming again?” — a reference to the 2002-03 viral outbreak that killed hundreds, the newspaper said.
Wuhan health officials summoned Li in the middle of the night to explain why he shared the information, and police later forced him to sign a statement admitting to “illegal behavior,” the Times said.
“If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier,” Li said in an interview in the Times via text messages, “I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”
Meanwhile, a newborn became the youngest known person infected with the virus. China finished building a second new hospital Thursday to isolate and treat patients and moved people with milder symptoms into makeshift quarantine centers at sports arenas, exhibition halls and other public spaces. And testing of a new antiviral drug was set to begin on patients.
Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Elaine Kurtenbach in Bangkok contributed to this report.